Mitt Minderbinder, Cynicism Unlimited

Jon Voight as Milo Minderbinder

Over the past year, I have turned to many works of literature in an effort to get a handle on Mitt Romney. I have compared him to Eliot’s hollow men, Conrad’s Kurtz, the phonies lambasted by Holden, Doctor Faustus, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Richard Cory (although, unlike Cory, Mitt is not “always human” when he talks), Jane Austen’s Henry Crawford, Citizen Kane, and a host of characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (the little crocodile, the walrus and the carpenter, Humpty Dumpty). Although illuminating, however, none of these characters have done him complete justice. (You can see links to these comparisons below.)

I think I may have come up with the best fit yet: Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Indeed, thinking of this presidential election in terms of Catch-22 explains a lot.

Milo Minderbinder is a mess hall chef turned global capitalist. Through complex financial shenanigans that no one but he understands, he sends planes all over world (despite the fact that there’s a war going on) to buy and sell produce. He becomes so involved in international trade that he actually becomes an executive authority in any number of small countries.

But his entrerpreneurial spirit does not end there. He removes morphine from the soldiers’ first aid kits and parachutes from their planes to sell on the black market. When he makes a major financial mistake by buying the entire Egyptian cotton crop, he attempts to recoup his losses by coating the cotton with chocolate and serving it to the soldiers.  Then he enters the war business and contracts both with the Americans to bomb German bridges and with the Germans to shoot down the bombers. At one point he even contracts with the Germans to bomb his own air base.

He assures those who complain that everyone has a share in M&M Enterprises.  No one amongst the Americans has a framework for challenging what he does because he invokes the free enterprise system. To criticize him makes one guilty of socialism. In short, he has figured out how to operate a rigged financial system in which, no matter who else’s interests are at stake, he and his company will always profit.

So what does this have to do with Mitt Romney? Let’s first talk about him as a businessman and then move on to his presidential run. Romney appears very good at operating within fixed systems. Both in running Bain Capital and in managing his own personal taxes, he knew how to take every break and figure out every angle to turn a profit. And if there were rules that got in his way, he knew how to lobby to get them changed. It didn’t matter to him whether workers lost their pensions or that communities lost their factories or that his country lost tax money squirreled away in the Cayman Islands or in Switzerland. What mattered was that, by playing by capitalism’s rules, he made money for himself and his shareholders.

And it wasn’t only the tax system that he understood. When running the Olympics, he knew how to get the $340 million from the federal government that he needed to bail the games out.

Those who hope that Romney’s business expertise will make him a capable president are pointing to his wheeler-dealer skills. If he could do this for himself, they reason, he will do it for the country. If he is our next president, I too will be desperately hoping that his skills will help out our economy. After looking at his lack of success as Massachusetts governor, however, I’m not optimistic.

Incidentally, he appears to have more difficulties with systems that are not fixed, which is to say the world at large. That may be why he is largely uninterested in foreign affairs and, as president, might well delegate that responsibility to others. Of course, George Bush II also delegated foreign affairs to others (the neocons), and two disastrous wars ensued.

Anyway, Romney realized that, to win the nomination, he would have to run to the far right and then tack back to the center. No other respectable Republican politician could muster up a cynicism so wide as to allow him or her to advocate extreme policies one day and disavow them the next. In the primaries Romney attacked Rick Perry for being soft on the children of immigrants while in the first presidential debate he accused Obama of being soft on big banks. In other words, Romney does whatever is required to close a deal. A host of pundits, including Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman, say they’ve never seen anything like it. As Krugman asks, “Has there ever been a candidacy this cynical?”

Although it seems clear that truth has no place in the expediency-based Romney campaign, there have been moments of revealing truth-telling.  One was Romney’s top communications adviser Eric Fehrnstrom saying that any policy position could be Etch-a-Sketched away. Another was Romney pollster Neill Newhouse asserting, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

In retrospect, the Fehrnstrom comment—which most considered a gaffe–may have been a calculated ploy. Maybe Fehrnstrom was telling possible supporters, “Don’t believe what he says, because there’s a possibility that he really agrees with you.” Who knows when Romney is lying and when he is telling the truth? Those who are looking for any reason to vote against Obama might be relieved at this notion, able to convince themselves that whenever Romney says something they don’t agree with, he is lying, while the positions they agree with are “really” his.  This may enable them to vote against a president who makes them uncomfortable  because of his race, liberal politics, or the state of the economy

How does one run against an opponent who changes positions as easily as the Greek god Proteus changes shapes?  The president has been roundly castigated for his poor first debate performance, but think about his situation for a moment. He walked into that debate expecting to argue with Ayn Rand and suddenly found himself grappling with “I never advocated a 20% across-the-board tax cut that favors the wealthy.”

So before being too hard on Obama, you try opposing someone who smoothly does a 180-degree policy turn with 67 million people watching and the future of America at stake. You try arguing with someone who takes an extreme position and then denies that he has ever taken it—and who might, tomorrow, assume that position yet again. 

Perhaps Romney wouldn’t get away with his “say anything to close the deal” shenanigans if the news media called him out.  Or perhaps Romney would have a tougher time without the alternate reality created by the rightwing media. What we do know, however, is that, as in Catch-22, mere reason doesn’t work because words and statements twist and turn and double back on themselves. Catch-22 operates by a “heads I win, tail you lose” logic. If you try to grapple with it on its own terms, you lose.

Will reality call him to account? In the novel, reality is the airman Snowden, whose guts are blasted out by anti-aircraft fire. Yossarian also witnesses the horrors of human savagery in the Rome night chapter. Life can’t all be sidestepped by invoking catch-22 or through campaign wordplay. Reality may stop Romney’s endless spinning, either because the economy is slowly improving despite what he says or because some pundits and community leaders are able to expose him. Maybe The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and MSNBC can add four percent to the 47% of the American population that Romney thought he could write off.

If not, then we are like the crew in Yossarian’s plane, grabbing for our parachutes on a plane going down in flames, only to find in their place a certificate promising a single share in “M&M” industries.


Past posts about Romney, describing him as

–Marlowe’s Faustus

Chauncey Gardener and Oakland (“no there there”)

Alice (in Wonderland)

Richard Cory, Tom Buchanan, Eliot’s Hollow Men, Kurtz, and a Philip Pullman character with a chameleon as his daemon

–Belloc’s Matilda (who told lies and was burned to death)

Jack in Lord of the Flies and the Baron in Rape of the Lock

Tom Buchanan again

Citizen Kane

Hemingway’s dead leopard in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

–Jane Austen’s Henry Crawford

Holden’s targets

–(and from Slate magazine) Dolores Umbridge

–Lewis Carroll’s Little Crocodile

the Walrus and the Carpenter

Humpty Dumpty

the wealthy in Grapes of Wrat

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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